Bad Day for the Cut
Director: Chris Baugh
A revenge-thriller by any other name is still a revenge-thriller and in the case of Irish import Bad Day for the Cut, it’s a rote, routine revenge-thriller, elevated – if it’s elevated at all – by the location (Northern Ireland), history and context (the “Troubles” make a long unwanted reappearance), and the central character, a pot-bellied, gray-bearded Irish farmer, Donal (Nigel O’Neill), with a questionable maternal fixation and expert-level machine skills, including a shotgun that rarely leaves his side. When he goes on the obligatory rampage after the surprise (to him, not the audience) murder of his mother, Florence (Stella McCusker), he sees blood-red and begins working up the chain of command of a local crime gang, beginning with the Polish immigrant-turned-criminal, Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), he rescues from the business end of a mallet in exchange for information regarding Bartosz ‘s boss (and the boss’ boss, etc.). What starts as a kidnapper-kidnapped relationship turns into an alliance of sorts when common interests dictate they work together, Donal to find out why his mother was murdered and the identity of the signal-caller and Bartosz to save his sister from a short, brutal life of prostitution. Bad Day for the Cut ultimately takes the road most traveled revenge-thriller wise, making a point – a point handled with great visual flair and thematic depth in Jeremy Saulnier’s criminally underrated, underseen Blue Ruin – about the potentially devastating emotional costs of seeking extra-judicial revenge for a crime or crimes (same as it ever was). When revealed, Bad Day for a Cut’s central antagonist, Frankie Pierce (Susan Lynch), a businesswoman with criminal ties, it’s something of a minor surprise, but only because she’s a woman in a position of power, a rarity in the sub-genre or in Bad Day for the Cut for that matter. Women are otherwise relegated to mothers and victims, a narrative deficiency that suggests director Chris Baugh isn’t nearly as progressive as he thinks he is by making the villain a woman.
Rebel in the Rye
Director: Danny Strong
PSA (Public Service Announcement) for filmmakers thinking about making a biopic about a writer: Please don’t. Unfortunately, it’s too late for writer-director Danny Strong (Empire, The Butler, Game Change). Selectively adapting Kenneth Slawenski’s monumental 2012 biography, “J. D. Salinger: A Life,” Strong’s feature-length directing debut, Rebel in the Rye, takes an overly simplistic, reductive approach to Salinger as a writer and individual, focusing primarily on Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) before and immediately after World War II, from Salinger as a 20-year-old wannabe writer and his academic career studying writing under Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) through the seemingly herculean struggle to finish “The Catcher in the Rye,” and his decision to pursue ascetic seclusion in New Hampshire for the remainder of his life. Rebel in the Rye’s first scenes positively crackle with verve and energy. At 20, Salinger has all the confidence, and none of the maturity, of a man twice his age. He sees himself as a literary savior of sorts, saving literature from inauthenticity and falsity through his writing. Of course, to the outside world, he’s nothing, not even a name, a realization that Salinger predictably refuses to accept even after his first real love, Oona O’Neill (Zoe Deutch), marries Charlie Chaplin instead of waiting for Salinger to return from wartime service. It takes Burnett and his deliberately provocative, antagonistic interactions with Salinger to push the latter into accepting guidance and direction. Burnett spies Salinger’s raw talent, ambition, and singular voice from the get-go, but still sees vast, untapped potential. It’s Burnett who publishes Salinger’s first story in his monthly journal, “Story,” for the princely sum of $25. It’s also Burnett who prods Salinger to turn a short story involving Holden Caulfield into a novel. It takes years, not to mention an intervening war, for Salinger to finally complete “The Catcher in the Rye.” It’s there that Strong loses the narrative thread and thematic throughline, pursuing a loosely connected structure to convey Salinger’s increasing isolation from the publishing world and some of his less-than-sane songs, two marriages (one quickly annulled, the other lasting longer, but ultimately ending in divorce). The Salinger-Burnett friendship also frays, leaving Burnett a footnote in Salinger’s literary biography. Once Burnett departs stage left, however, Rebel in the Rye loses that aforementioned energy and verge, partly due to the absence of Spacey’s presence and partly due to absence of another character like Burnett in Salinger’s life to challenge him. Strong does succeed, however, in imbuing Salinger’s wartime experiences with economical efficiency (a product of Rebel in the Rye’s modest budget) and impressionistic power (e.g., a comrade frozen in a foxhole, a chain link fence standing in for a concentration camp), but those visual flourishes, however welcome and justified, disappear almost completely during Rebel in the Rye’s flaccid second half.
Director: Geremy Jasper
Sit through Patti Cake$, an underdog rapper drama (think 8 Mile, except with a female rapper), and more than likely, you’ll come out with one and only one conclusion: New Jersey is a hellhole or at least large swaths of New Jersey are, a state filled with dead-end cities and towns, a dreary post-industrial wasteland populated by the helpless and the hopeless. It stands in marked contrast to Jim Jarmusch’s romanticized depiction of Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson. In Paterson, the central character (also named Paterson) lives a relatively comfortable life, content with his job as a bus driver and happy with his wife. He’s an amateur poet, using spare moments to write a few lines here and there. Minus any pretensions to becoming a professional poet (i.e., published), Paterson (the character) goes about a week with few, if any, changes of any consequence. In stark, marked contrast, Patti Cake$’s title character, Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), wants nothing more than to escape the dreary, grinding poverty of New Jersey for the big city and bright lights across the George Washington Bridge. A wannabe rapper with self-esteem problems (she’s overweight, as her neighbors constantly reminder her), an alcoholic mother, Barbara (Bridget Everett), and a dying grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Patti’s future looks less than bright. She works as a bartender and occasional caterer, saving whatever she can for a demo tape she hopes to produce with her best friend/hype man, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). It’s only when Patti and Jheri convince an outsider musician, Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), to provide dope beats for Patti’s raps that the future as a rapper begins to look less like a bong dream and more like a real possibility. Unfortunately, the director, Geremy Jasper, follows the music/sports drama template beat-for-beat, including the usual mix of low and high points for the title character, the self-doubts and the adoration of agreeable crowds. Triumph is only a win away at a rapper competition for first-time. That familiarity doesn’t exactly breed contempt, but it comes close – probably too close – to generating audience disengagement. Luckily for Jasper, Patti’s rhymes are, indeed, dope (if typically crude, vulgar, and, at times, subversive) and Macdonald delivers a surprisingly convincing performance on both sides of the musical ledger, as the struggling dead-ender and the rapper wannabe. And sometimes, a performance – equal parts dramatic and musical – are enough to make a film like Patti Cake$ a worthwhile experience.
Directors: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith
In Alex and Andrew Smith’s (Winter in the Blood, The Slaughter Rule) Walking Out, a two-character drama set during a typically unforgiving Montana winter, Cal (Matt Bomer), the veritable embodiment of rugged male individualism (he lives alone in a cabin, hunting wild game for sustenance), takes his estranged suburb-soft son, David (Josh Wiggins), moose-hunting for the first time. What starts as a rite of passage with connections to patriarchal traditions dating back centuries, if not longer, ends as a harrowing, engaging survival drama, with Cal, injured by an errant rifle shot, physically carried by David down a mountain and presumably into the safety of hospitals, doctors, and modern medicine. When we first meeting David, he’s a typical post-millennial, slightly bored, preoccupying himself with a video game on his cell phone, visiting his father for the first time in a year. David shows little interest in Cal’s father-son bonding trip or his initial attempts to reconnect via their once shared experiences, going as far as questioning the need for the moose hunt, but Cal’s gravitational influence eventually convinces David to leave his cell phone behind and with that cell phone, any and all connection to the outside world, including his unnamed mother back in Texas. Together, they head out in Cal’s Jeep for the Montanan wilderness, a wilderness so pristine neither Cal, David, or the audience sees another living human being. Cal and David, however, encounter a lonesome male grizzly bear and later, in the incident that leaves Cal bleeding from a gunshot wound to the leg, an encounter with a mama grizzly and her cubs. Cal effortlessly slips into protective father mode, but David’s relative inexperience causes his rifle to go off inadvertently. With no way down the mountain except on foot, David suggests carrying Cal on his back, a decision that could doom them both. Alex and Andrew Smith’s script carries more than a whiff of conventionality as it jumps and skip from incident to incident, character beat to character beat (nothing like seeing your father dying to help overcome any obstacles to full-on bonding), but their direction, aided by Todd McMullen’s crisp, clean cinematography, elevates their script beyond the mere pedestrian to the remarkably enthralling. They’re no doubt helped by Bomer’s centered performance and Wiggins’ assured feature-film debut. Wiggins does more than just carry Bomer’s Cal down a mountain. He also carries Walking Out.